An Atheist Poem by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?

Something that people might not know about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the 19th century author of the frequently assigned (in college) feminist short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), is that she was also a poet. In her lifetime she published well over 500 poems. One of them is titled “Whatever Is”. This poem imagines an unmediated encounter with existence—an encounter free from the filters of “preconceived ideas”, “ancient myths”, and “each fiction old and dear”. Does this make Gilman’s poem a decidedly didactic and atheist poem, a kind of rationalist manifesto that recalls George Orwell’s famous saying: “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort”?

In other words, is this poem about prejudice, particularly religious prejudice, where people “stick to what they think—won’t hear / Whatever is” and it becomes a necessity to “choke each fiction old and dear/ Before the modest facts appear”?

Or, as a contrary (nonatheist) reading, might we simply interpret the poem as expressing ironic longing for an encounter with “whatever is” that is direct and unmediated (an encounter that might be characteristic of animals governed by instinct, but not of free humans caught in the mind’s “heavy dough” of concepts, ideas, and language)? Might, in other words, this poem be an expression of longing for a “Garden of Eden” relationship to existence that is simply not available to Hamlet-like humans plagued, unlike other living things, by ever-running and contradictory thoughts?

In short, what is this poem? A poem about the problems of epistemology, or of religion? Or both?

What’s your interpretation?

Here’s the poem (1893):

Whatever is we only know

As in our minds we find it so;

     No staring face is half so clear

     As one dim, preconceived idea—

No matter how the fact may glow.


Vainly may Truth her trumpet blow

To stir our minds; like heavy dough

     They stick to what they think—won’t hear

          Whatever is.


Our ancient myths in solid row

Stand up—we simply have to go

    And choke each fiction old and dear

    Before the modest facts appear;

Then we may grasp, reluctant, slow,

         Whatever is.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to An Atheist Poem by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think I would say to be lead to a particular flower for a hint/sign to be given of freedom ringing.

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